What if we didn’t mark any books?


Okay, so here goes. It’ll take some courage for me to utter the words – please stick with me. Perhaps my career is on the line for this one. What the heck. Are you ready for it?

What if I didn’t mark any books?

There, I said it.

What if we eventually realise that marking is inefficient and we came up with an alternative?

I have read so many blogs recently – and written one myself – about the importance of marking. Some of these pieces, written with the best of intentions, have even suggested that teachers on a full timetable – after they have finished planning for tomorrow, sitting in meetings, phoning a few parents and filling in data-entry sheets – mark every single book after every single lesson. Coupled with this is the evidence from everywhere you care to glance of the vital role of feedback: to take two examples there’s the Education Endowment Foundation, and, of course, Hattie’s effect sizes.

Please hear me out. This is not an iconoclastic argument against feedback, far from it. This is just an alternative suggestion – discard it if you will. There are three key reasons behind my proposal:

1. Marking is hugely time-consuming. I would say I spend at least eight hours a week on average marking even though I have developed one or two nifty tricks to speed it up. That’s a full day’s work for most professionals. Now, what if I was to redirect that energy into detailed planning? The kind of planning based on research and deep reflection with the sole aim of challenging and moving on students? I am not suggesting that we should be putting our feet up by 3.30, I am suggesting that by reinvesting the time spent marking into planning the kind of lessons, and sequences of lessons, that will genuinely move our students forward we might improve outcomes for young people.

2. Marking tends to happen away from the students, and too few students despite our best efforts seem to make great progress because of it. I can recall few, if any, ocassions when a student has made a giant leap forward as a result of my marking alone. Yes, a few technical errors and misconceptions are resolved, but how much else? The process can feel depersonalised and perfunctory – is it the most effective means of providing feedback on written work?

3. If we are going to work until 68, which is a genuine possibility, we need to find more manageable solutions to avoid our workload consigning us to an early grave.

Still with me? Okay, so the big question now is what do we do about feedback, both of the formative and summative variety, seeing as it has a crucial role in learning? The answer is not to ignore it, but to bring it to the forefront of everything we do in the classroom.

In my utopian, post-marking English classroom the following might happen:

  • The first stage of planning would be the ‘five-minute flick’. I would select a cross-section of books to check through to assess the learning from the previous lesson. Nothing would be written in them, not even a stray red tick. One or two, however, would be photographed.
  • Most lessons would begin with showing example student work from the last lesson. Together we would model the editing process, discuss common misconceptions. Students would be encouraged to edit their own work and ask any pressing questions.
  • Most lessons would involve a period of quiet writing practice and once a fortnight they would have a lesson of private reading. During these times I would see a handful of students individually to discuss the writing they have produced over the previous fortnight. We would agree on targets and ways forward; we would both record this. Over the fortnight, each student would get one-to-one time with the teacher to assess how far they have got and where they should aim next.
  • In my experience peer assessment is fraught with problems – mainly because, however well you train the class to do it proficiently, each student is at the mercy of the accuracy and commitment of the student plonked next to her. Therefore, ‘gallery critique’, where students circulate and critique many pieces of work, would become a regular occurrence. See my post on the strategy here. Students would become trained at assessing one another and as teachers we would have a huge incentive to do it well – we wouldn’t have to do it ourselves.
  • Summative assessment would take place as a holistic grade – or whatever a alternative has been decided upon in the wake of KS3 levels – based on the term’s work. The final teacher-student discussion of the term would be used for this. A decision would be made with the student present, thus ensuring the student is fully involved with the reasons behind the grading.

I have a number of other ideas but I want to keep this post as a short thinkpiece. Our education system worships at the altar of marking, but have we stopped to think about the side effects of its excessive practice? Yes, there would be questions about accountability – human nature means that some teachers might use the extra freedom as an excuse to do very little. Organisation might also be quite tricky at times.

I think there are some serious unanswered questions about the costs of marking. Maybe my proposal is pie-in-the-sky thinking but surely this is an area that could do with some serious thought and research.

Let me know what you think below.

Related posts:

Time-management in education: a ‘win-win’ solution

Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

29 thoughts on “What if we didn’t mark any books?

    • Sorry, but it’s out of touch with how we need to work with our pupils, and could only begin to work in a subject that has extensive contact time. We are not all in that position and many of us therefore teach a very large number of pupils in any given week.

      • Interesting. I reblogged this precisely to get comment, rather than that i totally agree with it! My feeling is that overmarking can lead to a marked diminution of independent thought, but that the feedback element of the marking is a vital part of any progress being made.

  1. True anecdote: I spent a year teaching year 6 maths where the team made a quantum leap in attainment, increasing L4 sats from 59% to 80%. Yet hardly a book was marked.
    The key ? We lived and breathed Feedback of the immediate kind day in day out.
    Yes , during that time where I would have been marking , I was thinking about optimising the next day.
    I could take any class now and achieve stunning improvements like that again but would I?

    Having embedded an approach in my current workplace, which is now yielding fruit maybe not. For maths, partially perhaps and if I was clear of ofsted that year perhaps, otherwise who would dare do this under the framework? But NO MARKING how we got the most improved results in the county!

    The term feedback is so all encompassing (immediate is best) and it concerned me when I heard a senior lea advisor speaking to a colleague, with good intentions, as if formal marking is feedback itself , rather than being a sub component amongst many approaches.

    On the other hand I recall watching something by Phil Beadle which stuck with me saying that if he was pushed for time, the marking would come first, not plans.

    • Thanks for commenting. I don’t agree with the Phil Beadle argument – particularly in the early stages of a teacher’s career. Your evidence above seems a powerful argument against too much formalised marking. Thanks once again.


    • I agree completely, but how do you work around the demand from SMT to demonstrate marking? Which is, incidentally, why I think most marking is actually there, for the benefit of visitors and management.

  2. LOVE this, for my technology lessons I do smaller assessed pieces that we mark with the students in class in the form of controlled practical assessments (with interviews/tutorials during the lesson time to assess the progress made WITH the student.) These have been brilliant because they make sure that students understand why/how they have achieved their level and give the younger students an idea of what it feels like to be in the controlled assessment environment ready for KS4. I can totally see how this theory could develop, no reason to mark things for the sake of marking. FAB blog 🙂

  3. I have long espoused the idea at my school that the pupils need to do more than we do and that time should be used for planning. Therefore, I have encouraged staff to think carefully about what and how they mark. However, not yet being judged as Good by OfSTED (hopefully will get there by this Christmas) means that we are constantly thinking about what we need to do to ensure that we don’t get judged as RI again. Marking is obviously high on the agenda of HMI and we always feel that we cannot take risks. I would love to promote your utopian vision more fully and will do when we are safer. Reflecting on how that is a terrible place to be!

  4. Great Post! Over the years I have written extensive comments (first, by hand, then digital), rubrics, and assigning grades… very cumbersome. The past two years, I have transformed my class from frontal to collaborative, project based learning, where students’ learning journeys are both individualized and personalized. The results have been more authentic deep learning. I struggle with assessing the students; the personalized/individualized approach allows me to provide feedback that is truly aimed at the specific students’ achievements and opportunities for growth because it is a back and forth process. It is time consuming, but it is worth it. I love the gallery critique approach for it not only gives students a voice and an opportunity to critique others’ works, but also gives different perspectives. I am going to implement it in my routines with the students. Thanks for the idea!

  5. It would be nice to believe that a reformed Ofsted would be more open to different ways of assessment. I’ve been doing something I didn’t know was gallery critique for about 8 years. With a very low set year 10, they went from being horrified at the idea to asking for their work to be used, as they could see how useful it is. A collaborative, non-personal approach is vital.

  6. Thank you, atharby:I quite agree. I’ve often said to my department that most teachers spend more marking than students spend writing. I remember early in my career noticing that students would receive their work back, look at the grade and then drop the essay in their bag – without taking note of my carefully crafted comments. Since then, I’ve worked hard to avoid that happening – and that has actually meant I have worked less hard on marking – a win-win! I agree with you and others – immediate feedback is valuable, as is circulating work – the gallery critique technique is very effective.

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  9. It sounds like a great idea. Instant feedback is much more valuable and it probably encourages them to request help. They will certainly benefit from that. However, there’s something missing. I work and live abroad, so I have had to learn another language. Obviously, it’s crucial for me to know is how to check my own work – especially since I have to write reports. It’s so much easier nowadays using the internet. But you do need to understand grammar. I feel it is really, really important for children to learn how use the internet to check – and I’ll never -understand why children aren’t taught grammar in more depth.

    • Thanks for commenting. I agree with you on both points – self-editing and grammar. The particular focus of this post is the teacher’s role in marking. In the UK at present a culture of ‘red pen accountability’ has grown. My argument is that teachers should have more flexibility about how they proceed with marking; it is the outcomes that matter more than the process. Your point is entirely true – ultimately, students should be developing knowledge and practice in the simple art of checking their own work for errors.



  10. I think the best way is one of the toughest for the kids and I do this with GCSE/A level students: marking their work in front of them, using the mark scheme, so they can see exactly what’s happening. I agree with you that instant feedback is by far the superior method. It’s just finding the time to do that with all of them – that’s the hard bit.

  11. In my humble opinion – deep thinking and Immediate feedback is the key.
    Most of my lessons are activity based and don’t include writing but activities and discussions leading to deep contemplation about the learning. Then they eventually apply this learning to exam questions via google docs and when the google docs are shared with me I comment on them and they improve them. Shud I have to print this out and get the students to stick it in a book to prove that I give feedback and that the students make progress from my feedback? The immediacy of the response is the thing that works – making the students think about their application of the knowledge and deepening their understanding. And the benefit for the teacher is that responding to one email/doc takes 5-10mins n doesn’t require an 8 hour session, ticking work that doesn’t need ticking n saying good work just because you are expected to. The students gain so much more from your absolute presence and passion in the lesson, where them and their individual understanding is number one. Instilling a sense of pride and ownership in the students work has got to be right up there too. And that way when you do ask the students to show you their books, they are thrilled to show you their colourful, unique learning journey that does not need defacing with a red pen.

  12. So, I had a call from a parent asking if I would have a look at her son’s book, as he’d just like to know how he was doing on this topic. I was aghast ! How had I missed this book ? I checked it and found I had not actually marked his – or any other in that class since October – it was March !! Whattttttt ???? I did a load of ticks etc V. quickly ! Two months later they did their end of KS3 SATS – and that class is still the best set of results I have ever had.
    Moral – with no ‘negative’ feedback, no corrections – only the positive stuff on their end of 6 week unit assessments (on A4 paper kept in a folder), their exercise books had turned into personal note books, practice pieces and exercises (which they had self-marked immediately at the end of the exercise).
    I could now spend ages theorising about the benefits of ‘not marking’ and ‘just assessing’ – the bottom line is I am convinced ‘correcting’ work is the equivalent of trying to improve your puppy’s behaviour by focusing on what you don’t want him to do. We do not ‘teach’ children how to ‘do’ anything else by constantly pointing out what is wrong about their performance, we encourage good behaviour only when we actively praise. And by sheer over-sight, this is what I believe I had done with this class.
    I am absolutely convinced you are right. Unfortunately, as marking is generally used as an important criteria of teachers’ work rate and commitment I rarely admit to my Class of ’04 technique ! But I am now going to go back to my department and we are going to talk about this properly – if we come up with anything worth sharing, I might get back to you.

  13. As a Dutch teacher I am always baffled with the British obsession with marking books. Marking books is not something that is regularly done in Dutch schools. And yet Dutch students do not seem to be doing worse than their English counterparts, on the contrary.

    For me instant feedback is king, but why do it in the most cumbersome way possible by marking books?
    I’m an EFL teacher and I use computers and iPads a lot. Websites/apps like quizlet, bitsboard, edmodo (for tests) give my pupils the instant feedback they need. And they free up my time in class so I can do a lot of one on one tutoring with my less able pupils.”

    I grade the edmodo tests either in class (together with the pupil) or at night and then provide individual written feedback for all pupils. This takes about 20-30 minutes per class.

    This setup works very well and especially the less able students are profiting, without slowing the more able pupils down as everybody gets to go through the material completely in their own pace.

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